Are you thinking about hiking the Grand Canyon? This hiking guide will walk you through what food to bring, how to prepare yourself for the trail, and the best trails for your hike.
I left my heart in Arizona, along a dusty, mule-worn path winding down into the center of the earth.
The husband and I have hiked into the depths of the Grand Canyon twice now– once a day hike, and once all the way down to the Colorado River and back. And one day soon, I’m convinced that my boots will yet again be covered with the canyon’s bright red dirt.
Are you planning to make this “bucket list” hike a reality? Here are a few things I learned along the way. We’ll start with the food (of course), and then move on to preparing for the hike, and which trails are my favorites.
Food at the Grand Canyon
At the Rim:
The night before your hike, load up on calories! Check out these camping recipes for cooking ideas, and check out the exceptionally well-stocked Canyon Village Market + Deli grocery store in the Canyon Village.
Another option is to order pre-made food at one of the cafes inside the park. (I like the pizza at the Canyon Village Deli.)
If you’re already inside the park, think twice before driving outside to one of the local towns for dinner. Lines to get back inside the park can be LONG. If the park is crowded– stay put.
On the Trail:
My biggest food regret for our last Grand Canyon trip was that I didn’t bring a variety of different foods. In fact, I was so incredibly sick of eating peanut butter spread onto tortillas that when we finally got back to the rim– I burned the remaining peanut butter wraps in our campfire.
I also underestimated just how hard very dense foods (like peanut butter) would be to swallow in the sweltering heat. For your trip, especially if it will be hot– bring an assortment of foods, and try to bring some refreshing and juicy snacks (like apples).
Also, make sure to avoid chocolate in warm weather. (Melted chocolate is messy, messy, messy!)
How much food should you bring? The answer is– a lot of it! And make it calorie dense.
Incredibly, hikers inside the Grand Canyon can burn over 1,000 calories per hour. Since your body needs calories to keep going, bring lots and lots of food!
What kind of food? Here are some options:
- Nut butter, honey, + raisins on flatbread or tortillas
- Trail mix
- Granola bars + protein bars
- Fruit roll-ups
- Cookies, candy bars, + gummies
- Hard fruit (like apples)
- Jerky (vegan if desired)
- Couscous + vacuum-sealed packages of tuna (plus a backpacking stove)
- Dehydrated backpacking meals (plus a backpacking stove)
- Food at the bottom of the canyon: Reserve a meal at Phantom Ranch (requires several month’s notice)
- Food at the bottom of the canyon: Bring cash, and buy lemonade, beer, and snacks at Phantom Ranch
How Much Water Do I Need to Hike the Canyon?
When it’s hot outside, the National Park Service recommends that each hiker drink 4 liters (or 1 gallon) of water per day.
Make sure to add electrolytes (or Gatorade) to your water, especially during warm months, because hyponatremia (abnormally low sodium levels) is a real danger when you’re drinking lots of water and sweating. Another option is to bring electrolyte gummies.
Is There Water on the Trail?
The Bright Angel Trail and the North Kaibab trail both have water spots– sometimes. The lines occasionally break, and not all water spots are open all year long. The South Kaibab trail does not have potable water. It’s a good idea to head into the welcome center and ask if the water lines are running before hiking.
(The water spots on the trail are also fabulous for dousing your entire body with water to cool down.)
Always carry water with you. If you’re planning on refilling your water at the bottom of the canyon, make sure to have a way to treat the water– water from creeks is not safe to drink without treating.
How to Physically Train for Hiking the Grand Canyon
For both of my Grand Canyon hikes, I started training several months ahead of time. Make sure to train enough so that you’re comfortable hiking with a weighted pack for several hours.
Keep in mind that this hike is incredibly hard on the knees– especially going downhill. I don’t have knee problems, and my knees hurt after the hike. If you wear a knee brace– don’t forget it. A trekking pole might also help provide support.
Uphill Training: Use a treadmill, and try walking with the incline grade turned all the way up. Avoid supporting yourself on the handles. Keep in mind that in places, the Grand Canyon has a much steeper grade than most treadmills can replicate.
Downhill Training: Hiking the Grand Canyon is like walking down and then up the biggest staircase in the world. To train, grab a sturdy step stool and some hand weights, and practice stepping up and down. Repeat.
Back Strengthening Training: Use a rowing machine to help strengthen your upper back muscles. This will help you deal with the weight of your pack.
Endurance Training: Leave the gym, add weight to your backpack, and go hiking. Try to find long trails, and get used to carrying your pack for long stretches. Bring along some of the food + electrolyte supplements you’re planning on taking, and make sure you like the flavors.
Do I Need Hiking Boots?
I recommend them.
You’ll be walking on dirt paths, and there will occasionally be areas with lots of loose pebbles. If you choose not to wear boots, make sure that your shoes have excellent grip, and that the tread is not worn down.
If you (like me), have weak ankles from previous sprains– I’d definitely recommend ankle-high boots.
Make sure to avoid wearing tight-fitting boots, lace them tightly (especially towards the front of the shoe), wear thick hiking socks, and trim your toenails before heading out. The hours of steep downhill hiking can be hard on your toenails, and make your feet extra sore.
Do I Need a Hat?
Yes. I am not inclined to wear hats– but trust me– there’s little to no shade on most of the trails, and the heat can be relentless. Wear a brimmed hat— preferably one that won’t blow off your head if there’s a gust of wind.
Make sure to also bring along sunscreen and sunglasses.
What Should I Carry in My Pack while Hiking the Grand Canyon?
As little as possible. Every ounce will weigh you down. We kept my pack to 20 pounds, and the husband’s at 35 pounds. Water should be the bulk of your weight.
Need help loading your pack? Check out this article from REI: How to Pack and Hoist a Backpack.
Here’s a list of things we brought (plus one I wish we’d brought):
- Headlamps (We skipped these– and it was a mistake. Have a hands-free way to light your path in the dark.)
- First Aid Kit: ACE bandages, ibuprofen, antibacterial wipes, antibacterial gel, + bandaids
- Hand sanitizer
- Tissues or Toilet Paper
- Wet Wipes
- Trekking poles (Technically you’ll hold these, but they can also be strapped to your pack. Trekking poles are also good for shooing away squirrels)
- Food + Water (see above for ideas)
- Water Filter or Purification Tablets
- Overnight Trip: Change of clothes (If desired)
- Overnight Trip: Small backpacking stove (Not totally necessary, but a cooked meal is nice after hiking.)
- Overnight Trip: Cash for Phantom Ranch Canteen
- Overnight Trip: Small tent, sleeping pads, blow-up pillows
- Overnight Trip: Hiking Sandals (for walking around the campground)
How Hot Does the Canyon Get?
The bottom of the canyon can be as much as 30 degrees hotter at the bottom than at the top. In the summer, it can get up to 120ºF at the bottom.
Ideally, hike in spring or fall, and avoid hiking in the middle of summer.
Where Can I Camp Inside the Canyon?
At the Bottom: The Bright Angel Campground is a reservation-only campground near Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. The campground provides camp areas with tables, animal-proof food boxes, and vault toilets. Phantom Ranch is a lodge at the bottom of the canyon (and it books up EARLY).
Along the Trail: There are two reservation-only campgrounds along the trails, so you can split up your hike if you prefer. Indian Gardens is along the Bright Angel Trail, and Cottonwood Campground is on the North Kaibab.
Backcountry Camping: You can also camp off the trail, but you need a special permit.
Is there Anything to Do At the Bottom of the Canyon?
When we planned our trip, I thought– “How many times are you ever at the bottom of the Grand Canyon? We should explore!”
Here’s the deal. There are a few day hikes you can do while within the canyon, but I didn’t find them to be exceptionally well-marked. And by the time we got to the bottom, I was tired enough that didn’t trust my judgement on an unclearly marked trail into the wilderness.
So, if you want to hike on one of those trails, I suggest talking to a park ranger before starting your hike, and also making sure that you are coherent enough to make good hiking decisions.
Here’s what we actually did at the bottom of the canyon:
- Sat on boulders in the Bright Angel Creek, rested our very sore legs in the cold creek water, and worked on the art of doing nothing.
- Walked to the shore of the Colorado River, dipped our toes in the water, and ate our lunch on the sand.
- Wandered down the walking path around Phantom Ranch.
- Drank lemonade and beer inside the Phantom Ranch Canteen.
- Went to bed early.
What Trail Should I Take when Hiking the Grand Canyon?
There are a lot of trails inside the canyon, but only a few are well traveled. The 3 corridor trails are the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail on the South Rim, and the North Kaibab Trail on the North Rim.
Most visitors go to the South Rim of the Canyon. The North Rim is less crowded, but it’s closed longer for winter, and has fewer park services available. (It’s also a 5 hour drive from the South Rim.)
Want to learn about other trails? I love this book: Official Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon
(No Permit Required)
Pick one of the designated Day Hike spots on either the Bright Angel or South Kaibab trails. (These spots are clearly marked on trail maps and at the trail heads.)
Do not go past the designated day hike end points, and keep track of the time as you hike. Plan on it taking twice as long to come up as it did to go down.
If you’re hiking when it’s warm, try to avoid being on the trail between 10am and 3pm.
Be prepared– our day hike on the South Kaibab was one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done.
Rim to River Hikes
From the South Rim, you can either take the South Kaibab Trail or the Bright Angel Trail.
The South Kaibab Trail offers sweeping, breathtaking views of the canyon. At 6.8 miles long, it’s considerably shorter than the 9.1 mile Bright Angel Trail. It’s also steeper, has no shade, and no water.
The Bright Angel Trail is longer, winds through green valleys within the canyon, and has several water options.
The most popular Rim to River route is to go down the South Kaibab Trail, and back up the Bright Angel Trail. This is the route we took, and it worked well.
Rim to River hikes still require you to hike all the way back out of the canyon, but you’re only hiking to one of the two canyon rims.
Rim to Rim Hikes (+ Rim to Rim to Rim)
The other popular hike through the Grand Canyon is a Rim to Rim. This involves hiking from the top of the South Rim (either on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab), all the way to the Colorado River, and then up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim of the canyon. (Or vice versa.)
A Rim to Rim to Rim hike is where you then turn around and hike all the way back to the South Rim.
I’m afraid of heights. Should I try hiking the canyon?
I can’t tell you how many times I Googled this phrase before we got to the canyon. The answer– unsatisfyingly– is “it depends.”
It depends on how afraid you are, and how determined you are.
I am afraid of heights, but I’ve found that for me, as long as the path is relatively wide, and as long as there is a wall on one side of the path, I’m fine. At the Grand Canyon, the corridor trails are generally wide enough for a person and a mule to stand side-by-side, and there is usually a canyon wall on one side.
And when I got to the few spots where it wasn’t wide, or where there wasn’t a canyon wall, there was no way I was turning around.
So– know yourself, and make sure your trail buddies are willing to cancel the hike (or find something for you to do while they hike), if you arrive at the canyon and decide you just can’t do it.
Hiking the Grand Canyon
- Mules have right away— step toward the canyon wall as they pass.
- Hikers going up always have right away over hikers going down. If you’re going down, step towards the canyon wall to let them pass. If you’re coming up, and it doesn’t seem like the hikers coming toward you are moving, say “excuse me” and ask them to move.
- Do not multi-task. If you want to take a picture, stop hiking, take the photo, and then move on.
- Eat and drink often. Drink before you feel thirsty, and eat before you feel hungry.
- Pay attention to your body. If you find that you’re starting to trip over your feet, or are feeling disoriented– stop hiking, rest, and eat and drink.
- Stay cool. If you’re hiking in the heat, get your shirt or hat wet, and rewet it throughout the hike to stay cool.
- Do not attempt to hike the entire canyon in one day. It’s incredibly dangerous.
- Start early— we started well before sunrise both times. It will help you avoid crowds, and get you off the trail before midday.
Hit the trail well-prepared, and enjoy one of the most breathtaking spots on earth!