Hiking the Grand Canyon should hold a solid spot on any hiking enthusiasts bucket list. With over 5 million annual visits the Grand Canyon is popular for a good reason, it’s amazing. Simple as that.
But how does one escape the crowds of this massively popular National Park?
Having just returned from a winter trip to the Grand Canyon, I have the answer…visit the Grand Canyon in winter.
So let’s explore what it takes to hike and spend time in the backcountry of the Grandest of Canyons in winter.
HOW TO AVOID THE CROWDS IN GRAND CANYON
Avoiding the crowds starts with picking the right time of year to visit the Grand Canyon. And the right time is, well, basically anything but the dead of summer.
Arizona in the winter is one of my favorite places. The crowds are gone, the temps aren’t scorching hot, and if you’re lucky you can enjoy the contrast of a white dusting of snow amongst the red rocks.
The next best way to ditch the crowds is to get off the rim. Of the 5 million annual visitors that stroll the National Park, only a fraction step of the rim.
While it may sound daunting to hike down into the canyon during winter, I assure you with the right preparation you can do it.
STAYING SAFE HIKING THE GRAND CANYON
Avoiding the crowds does you no good if you’re not being safe. The high desert of Arizona is no joke. You may have a deceptively warm day followed by torrential rains, snow, flooding, lightning or any combination of the lot.
When compared to summer there are several unique things one must prepare for when hiking in the Arizona high desert.
- Trails can get extremely icy as the day melts and the evening freezes. Having the right equipment to prevent falls is essential. This is even more important if you are carrying a heavier overnight pack.
- Snow can obscure the trail making route finding difficult. Snow has an amazing way sending you of course down what looked like a trail but instead turned out to be a wash. Even a strong breeze may transport enough freshly fallen snow to obscure a trail.
- Not drinking enough water while in the cold. People tend to not drink enough while hiking the cold and call fall victim to dehydration.
- Things take longer in the winter. What you can normally hike in the summer will be less when you factor in snow, ice, and route finding.
- An emergency in the winter is a bigger deal than one in the summer. Finding help and if needed a rescue are all significantly more difficult in the winter. Air resources such as helicopters may not be able to fly due to weather.
Now that we’ve identified these challenges of hiking in winter let’s look at how to get around these and stack the odds in our favor.
TIPS FOR HIKING IN WINTER
First off we must do a little planning. Hitting the park during a massive winter storm that dumps 2 feet of snow might be more than you bargained for.
- Check the weather and road conditions
- Contact the Ranger Station for trail closures and conditions
- Make sure you are in good health and prepared for the length of hike you’re planning.
- Gather any needed equipment that you may not have
I was hesitant to even put in this temperature chart as I don’t think it’s very useful. The weather can vary so much in the high country of Arizona that an average temp doesn’t really do you much good.
Make sure you pack for the really cold, rain, and snow that you could see here.
Earlier we identified five things that can give hikers and backpackers trouble when hiking the Grand Canyon in winter. Let’s go over how to get around these common problems
1. Icy Trails – Get yourself some Yaktrax or the more robust Yaktrax summit. Even if you think you’ll tough it out with your gnarly soled hiking boots it gets old having to dance around the icy spots and I promise you’ll go down at least once. People were falling all around us including ourselves.
Next up are the trekking poles. Dork alert! I know, but they really are handy when things get slick and they take a lot of weight off your legs when hiking down-hill.
2. Getting Lost – Even just a couple inches of snow can make route finding difficult. Have a good waterproof map and compass…and know how to use them.
Get yourself a GPS or better yet turn your phone into what I think is the ultimate GPS. I’ve had great luck using Gaia and especially like the free worldwide maps that are available. We used it all over Nepal and it was spot-on. I plan to have an article on how to set up Gaia soon so check back.
4. Give yourself extra time – Things can take a bit longer in winter when you’re dealing with slick trails or variable weather. If 8 miles is a comfortable day hike for you then drop that to maybe 5 in the winter.
5. Have a plan for an emergency – That starts with you being prepared to stay put for a while should you bust an ankle. Having extra warm clothes, fire-starter, and a tarp to shelter you is a good start. First-aid kit is a must (here’s my DIY travel first-aid kit).
From here we need a way to get help. Cell-phone likely won’t work but it’s always worth a try. Emergency location devices like a Spot or Garmin are a great option. Signaling mirrors are essential to have in your pack.
Don’t forget the most simple rescue method of leaving a note or telling other people where you’re going and when you plan to come out.
Now that we have an idea how to combat the five challenges of hiking the Grand Canyon in winter let’s get into the clothing and then finish with a complete packing list.
PICKING THE RIGHT CLOTHING FOR WINTER HIKING
SYNTHETIC BASE LAYERS
Staying warm in the winter is all about staying dry. And that starts with base layers that can breathe and dry quickly. Synthetics or wool based are the ticket here.
The REI lightweight base layer is an affordable and great choice if you don’t already have something. You can see the ladies version and mens version here. Here’s another option from Amazon I’ve used in the past.
Here I like to have either a down or synthetic puffy coat. I try to bring enough mid-layers that I likely won’t need the puffy so that it can serve as a reserve should things get real chilly or something else goes wrong.
Shoot for a good breathable raincoat and rain pants. I typically don’t worry about breathability for my legs and have been happy with the less expensive options. But the top must be a good breathable waterproof fabric.
I’m a huge fan of the SteriPen, here’s my review.
Hands down my favorite camping stove, check it out!
- Water bottles (3) or hydration reservoirs (drink ½–1 qt. of fluid per hour)
- Portable power device (optional)
- Field guide; star identifier (optional)
- Outdoor journal, pen and reading material (optional)
- Backcountry permit
- National Parks pass
- Fishing gear and permit (optional)
- Credit card; small amount of cash
- Trip itinerary left with friend and under car seat
Head over to our Grand Canyon In Winter guide for winter trail recommendations and general park info