I read somewhere that in his first expedition down the Grand Canyon, John Wesley Powell (a one-armed Civil War vet) had about 40 pounds of coffee and some moldy flour left over when he finished his trip. That was it. There was no other food.
Like John Wesley Powell, I had some useful hindsight about what I should’ve packed (and left behind) when first visiting Grand Canyon. These are the items that made all the difference to me during my two seasons working at the canyon as a trip leader and Park Ranger.
- Cotton shirts for hiking. This is HUGE. The trails are filled with people wearing fancy sweat-wicking duds, but I will take my grody thrift store cotton t-shirts over that any day. Why? Because in the desert, you do not need any help getting your sweat to dry! The dry air is doing that for free! So save your dollars and get some cheap cotton tees that will evaporate slowly and keep you cool longer. Dip that thing in a creek and you’ll have goose bumps. In Phantom Ranch. In August. It’s miraculous.
- UVA/UVB screening shirts. If you’re prone to burning, these are mad useful. Sunblock is great, but carrying the big container and reapplying it every 2 hours when you’re hiking… no thanks. Go with long sleeves and a light color to reflect that sun.
- Boss hiking pants. Pants are great no matter the season—they’ll protect from sun and you don’t want your thighs scraping up on grit and thorns when you sit down. The desert is prickly, y’all. Bonus points if the pants can zip off and become capris or longish shorts, as the temperatures range dramatically from the rim (at 7,000 feet) to the bottom of the canyon (2,000 feet). If pants aren’t your style, at the very least consider leggings. And definitely no jorts.
- Warm layers. Don’t let the high temperatures fool you, it gets cold in the desert at night, even in the summer. I’ve found a warm puffy coat, knit cap, thermal leggings, sweatshirt, and long-sleeved plaid shirt kept me cozy and are easy to gradually peel off as it warms up.
- A bandana. On my hikes in the canyon, I’ve used bandanas as:
- Sun protection (wrap it around your neck)
- Cooling device (get it wet and THEN wrap it around your neck)
- A napkin (I have a knack for spilling peanut butter)
- A bowl (stick your trail mix in it)
- Staunching a projectile nosebleed (high elevation + dry temps = the craziest nosebleeds I’ve ever seen)
- Other stuff
- I like the floppy wide-brimmed ones from Costco.
- I’ve forgotten these at home and gotten headaches as I hiked, just from squinting so hard. I never wore them before coming to Grand Canyon. Now they’re always in my bag.
- A raincoat. But wait, you say. This is the desert. Well, apparently we get monsoons in the Southwestern U.S., a fact that I was oblivious to until I moved there. From mid-July through August (and even into September), the Canyon gets almost daily afternoon downpours, which is awesome because the temperature plummets about 10 degrees, and it’s perfect conditions for rainbows. BUT, believe it or not, SAR (Search and Rescue) responds to cases of hypothermia in the Canyon when this happens.
- Hiking shoes. This is NOT the time to break in a new pair of boots. Bring whatever is comfortable to hike in, even if it’s some cheap sneakers.
- Way more socks and undies than you think you’ll need. This is a good rule of thumb anytime you are going anywhere.
Pro tip: chocolate chips will melt in your trail mix and become extra delicious.
- Chapstick. Chapstick. My first canyon camping trip I didn’t have it, and my lips got so chapped they started to shred and bleed. Even if you never wear chapstick at home, bring it. Ideally one with SPF.
- Super rich lotion. Again, it’s dry. Get something heavy like body butter.
- A (high) daily SPF is essential, this is not the place to try and get a tan. Walking around in a tank top without it can lead to some serious over exposure, which is not a good time.
- A little med kit—whether or not you’re going to go hiking, make sure this includes blister kit, tweezers (cacti thorns) and rehydration packets.
- Savory, salty snacks. The desert is so hot, you’ll be sweating constantly without even realizing, and your body will crave salt. Get salted nuts, dried veggies, pretzels, etc. If you’re planning a hike into the Canyon, maybe get a bag of emergency Cheetos. This is a time when it’s ok to eat a bit of junk.
- An insulated water bottle, at least 1-liter capacity. I LOVE these things. A standard plastic bottle gets so hot you’ll feel like you’re drinking tea. There is nothing better than getting a sip of ice water on a hot day in the canyon. It’s well worth carrying the extra weight.
- A headlamp with a red light setting. Grand Canyon is one of the darkest places in the lower 48, and the night skies are otherworldly-gorgeous. If you put it on a red light setting, you’ll preserve your eyes natural ability to see in dark settings, and get in some quality stargazing (and maybe even see other hidden treasures, like glow worms, or the tiny lights of hikers inside the canyon).
- Portable speakers. It’s bad etiquette to play music out loud while you hike. No one came to Grand Canyon to hear your dubstep.
- Super bright flashlights. I’ve been blinded when people across a campsite dropped their flashlight and it shone in my eyes. You just don’t need to light up anything more than the path in front of your feet.
Grand Canyon is a place like no other. It’s also got packing requirements like nowhere else. I hope this list is useful to you—if you have any questions or feedback, please leave a comment! And don’t forget to download that free packing list.