Winter Hiking – Rim to Rim, or River to Rim

My group does our yearly hikes in the late spring or early summer, so most of my website discussion deals with high heat in the Canyon.   However, I have hiked to some extent in all seasons, so here are my winter tips in addition to my regular equipment list:

1.  The weather at the Grand Canyon can change quickly, and you can suddenly find yourself in 11 degree temperature and blowing snow.  The weather on the Rim will be different than the weather in the inner canyon, always check on that.  Go to the NOAA weather site and look up the South Rim, Indian Gardens, and Phantom Ranch for current conditions and historical weather data.

2.  Be prepared for a winter wonderland.   Winter hikers will most likely be using the Bright Angel or South Kaibab trails from the South Rim.  You will most likely be hiking on snow and ice.  The Bright Angel Trail faces the north and is in the shade most of the time. Packed snow and ice is consistently encountered for the first three miles.  I have hiked on a foot + of packed ice and snow in late April, despite warm temps up on the South Rim.   The South Kaibab Trail is in the sun and gets considerable daytime heating.  But the initial 1/4 mile, called The Chimney, faces the north and it can have ice on it all winter long. Below The Chimney, ice is patchy on the trail.

If the ice packs or snow are melting, you’ll hike on mud or wet sand.  When you are picking out your footwear look for good tread and something that can resist mud and muck.  Meshy materials  should be avoided.

The North Rim is closed from mid-October through mid-May because it gets massive snowfall in the winter.  Those are approximate dates and in the event of heavy April or May snow, the North Rim may open a week or two late.  No one is there during those times, so don’t think you can R2R in the winter and find anything or anyone on the North (except waist deep snow).

3.  Crampons.  Crampons are traction devices (steel tips) that you strap on over your hiking shoes/boots that you will need for ice and snow.   These are required for any winter hiking, or you risk slipping and falling to your death.  You can do a quick internet search and find multiple sporting goods stores that sell them.   You can get a recreation pair for around $5, or go all out and get something alpine rated for bigger r$$.   Mine are the $5 type.

4.  Winter Water – never guaranteed.

Bright Angel Trail:  Inner canyon water is usually turned on in the summer, but not in the winter.  This winter (January 2014) the NPS site says that water is on at Indian Gardens and Phantom Ranch, and the water is OFF at the 1.5 and 3 mile rest houses.  That means there is only ONE possible provided water source  the entire 10 miles of this trail, approximately 5 miles into the hike up or down.   Carry more water than you think you need (I always take a 3 liter bladder plus 2 extra small bottles), and it will be important to fill up and top off your supplies when you do find water.  I always run out of water by Indian Gardens, and you should too if you are staying hydrated.

South Kaibab:  There is no water on this trail, ever.  No water pipe and no streams, just the water you take in your pack for 10 miles.  You should never plan to hike South Kaibab up and out of the Canyon, always just on the way down, for this exact reason.  At least on the Bright Angel trail you have water 1/2 way up (in winter – in the summer there are 2 other water stops) or you encounter a stream around Indian Gardens.  Running out of water is life-threatening in the Canyon all year round.

*No matter what time of year you hike, it is essential that you take gear to filter and purify dirty stream/river water.  The water pipeline breaks often and without warning, and these water interruptions may or may not be posted on the NPS Backcountry website.*

5.  Hiking poles.   Ice + snow + Mud = all kinds of slippery conditions with 1,000 to 2,000 foot drops nearby.  Enough said.

6.  Take warm clothes that you can layer, and be sure your outer layer is snow/rain proof or resistant as needed, with wicking materials underneath.  NO COTTON CLOTHES.  You will sweat when you hike, and cotton will get wet and stay wet.  At some point this will make you very cold and you will not be able to dry off and warm up in cotton.  You can freeze to death.  Hypothermia is a real threat, so don’t scrimp on appropriate clothing and error on the side of being too dry and too warm.

7.  All of the tips on my regular list about hydration and electrolyte replacement, gear, etc are relevant to winter hiking.  Read them all.

And of course, the regular hiking rules of the trail apply:

General Hiking Tips For the Grand Canyon

1.  No one hikes alone, out of the sight of others.  No hiking “ahead”, and don’t let anyone fall behind.  Altitude sickness, dehydration, headaches, and confusion can happen very quickly – in  just minutes.  People go from being fine to trail-drunk very quick, which means they can fall or wander off over a ledge.  When hiking in the Grand Canyon, safety means you stay together.

2.  High Altitude:  The South Rim sits above 6,800 feet and at that elevation you will have 25% less oxygen.  Everything will seem harder, because it will be.

Hike at as slow a pace as your slowest hiker needs.  Everyone should be able to walk and talk comfortably at the same time.  If everyone can’t both walk and talk without being out of breath, you are going too fast.  Slow down, stop often (even just standing there until heart rate and respiration come back down).

3.  Steep Incline:  You will be hiking up and down a steep incline, a vertical mile.

On South Kaibab, the average incline is 21%.  Go slow so you don’t tear up your knees and ankles. Use your hiking poles to keep you steady.

On Bright Angel, between Phantom Ranch and the South Rim, the average incline is 14%.  (Consider that our highways are built with warning signs and runaway truck ramps for a 6% grade, and then think what a 14 or 21% grade will do to your knees, legs and cardiovascular system).

On a trip from the Rim to the River, you will hike a vertical mile.  That is 5,000 feet.   You will climb the equivalent of the Empire State Building 4.18 times.  If you aren’t in excellent physical shape, don’t go.

4. Hydration:  Constant water hydration, salt, and electrolyte replacement is critical to fight dehydration. Dehydration is the gateway to exhaustion 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.

Try out several flavors of electrolyte powder drinks now, and keep a small clean bottle to mix them in.   The last thing you want to do is to try out a new drink mix flavor on the trail that you can’t stand.  I keep my Camelbak bladder full of regular water, and take 2 smaller bottles to mix electrolytes in along the way.

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.

5.  Low Humidity:

The Low Humidity of the desert means your sweat will evaporate very, very fast.  This can be confusing because you are hiking hard for hours and yet you are not even “breaking a sweat”.

6.  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.  If you are prone to sprained ankles or injury, find shoes that will give your ankle the support they need.

7.  Mule Trains:  Mule trains take supplies or people down to Phantom Ranch year round on both Bright Angel and South Kaibab, so you will likely see and smell them at some point.  Mules have the right of way on the trail.  Move to the inside side of the trail and stand still while the animals pass.  Be very quiet and don’t make any sounds or movements that might spook the mules.  You don’t want them knocking you off the ledge if they get spooked.

Mules poop and pee all the time, it’s nasty and sometimes they do it right on your feet when they walk by.  Be quiet and still even if they pee on your shoes.

8.  Other hikers:  Uphill hikers have the right of way.  When in doubt, just stop on the inside of the trail – get stable – and let people pass on by you no matter what direction they are hiking.  Especially in ice or snow, you don’t want someone to knock you over.

9. No Quitting: No joke.  There are no 911 calls in the Canyon and your phone will not work.  Once you hike in, you have to hike yourself out no matter what condition you are in.

Have fun, stay warm, and always tell someone your plans and routes.