Winter Hiking Tips

Be properly prepared when hiking in winter conditions | Photo by Mike Buchheit

As the season starts turning cold, I begin getting many questions from my readers about hiking the Grand Canyon in winter. There just isn’t a lot of information on Grand Canyon winter hiking. I am so pleased to know that more people are looking at this incredible time of year for their backcountry treks.

The primary thing to keep in mind when hiking here in the winter is that the weather can pretty much do anything! It can be nice and sunny one day, and the next you are walking in fresh snow up the trail. To read a story of one early April hike where this happened, read my trip report on the Clear Creek Saga. However, if you are well prepared for the elements, your winter hike can become one of the most magical moments of your life. It’s hard to describe the amazing views when the Grand Canyon’s buttes and mesas are covered with a dusting of snow. Everything looks fresh and sparkling!

One of the first questions I am asked about winter hiking is if it is a bad idea. If done right, it’s an excellent one! The crowds are non-existent, and it’s usually very easy to get meals at Phantom Ranch since there are often cancellations or reservations still available. And because it is the slow time of year, you can usually even get reservations in the hiker dorms or cabins at Phantom Ranch. You can find their contact information on Phantom Ranch for making reservations on my Phantom Ranch Lodging & Dining page. Unfortunately, you cannot make reservations online for Phantom Ranch. You’ll still have to telephone them. You can find more information on Phantom Ranch amenities and area activities from the Phantom Ranch menu.

Obviously, a winter hike in Grand Canyon is much different than hiking here in the summertime, and there are few things you need to know to help make your hike a enjoyable and safe one. Your clothing, food, and shelter are all critical elements that can make or break your hike. But on that note, I must say that those who hike in the winter are usually far better prepared than those you’ll find in the summer.

Let’s start with clothing. As I’ve mentioned on other pages within this site, the temperature and weather conditions can vary dramatically from the rim to the river. You are dropping nearly a mile in elevation as you trek down the South Kaibab or Bright Angel Trails. The difference between the temperature on the rim and at the Colorado River can range as much as thirty degrees! So on the rim, you may start with a thick fleece jacket, Goretex parka, long underwear, a hat and gloves, but by the time you are halfway down the trail, you may be comfortable in just pants and a shirt.

The fiber content of your clothing is extremely important. You do not want to wear cotton! Never, no way, and no how! The reason for this is that once cotton gets wet, it takes a long time to dry. This feature makes it a good choice in the hot, dry summertime when you want to do everything you can to assist your body in cooling itself down. But when you are dealing with the very cold temperatures of winter, you don’t want to be cooled down! I highly recommend that you go with synthetic fabrics. Wool can be an exception, but if you are at all sensitive to it, you will find it very itchy. And it’s still not as effective at wicking away moisture as synthetic fiber. Synthetic fibers do not absorb water, they dry quickly, and will wick the moisture away from your skin.

To emphasize how important this is, imagine hiking up and out of the Canyon. The trail is steep, and no matter how cold it is, you ARE going to perspire. If you are wearing cotton, it will become damp—and stay that way. As you rise in elevation, the temperatures dip lower. Just the cold temperatures alone can make you very uncomfortable, but with the added effect of the breeze (or wind) that is ever-present where the trail meets the rim, you will freeze! Once that cold air hits your damp body, it feels as if you’ll never warm up again! Hypothermia is a very real threat in the wintertime. Before you embark on a winter trip, I HIGHLY recommend you read a page published by Rick Curtis at Princeton called the Outdoor Action Guide to Hypothermia and Cold Weather Injuries. Knowledge is power—and safety!

There are already some wonderful, insightful articles on winter clothing online, so I’m not going to repeat the information here. I recommend you read Andy Hiltz’s excellent article, Layering, Winter Clothing, and Winter Backpacking. I wholeheartedly agree with his recommendations. Another concise and very helpful list can be found on Wilderness Backpacking’s Winter Backpacking Clothing Options page. These articles can be very helpful in preparing you properly for your winter hike.

Another important item to have along are instep crampons or Yaktrax. The trails at the Canyon can be covered with slick ice for the first mile or two more. It is treacherous and scary to be slipping and sliding while walking on the edges of cliffs! However, the use of snow traction devices as those mentioned above, will allow you to actually enjoy hiking on the icy trail. No kidding! The Canyon Village Marketplace in the Village also sells them very at very reasonable prices. Check for availability to make sure they have them in stock. Their phone number is (928) 638-2262; ask for the camping department.

If you are a serious trail hiker/runner on icy mountain trails, I would highly recommend that you take a look at the Kahtoola MICROspikes Pocket Traction System, made right here in Flagstaff, Arizona. They are quite a bit more expensive, but they are superior for gripping your boots or shoes while providing excellent traction on the most rugged trails. This is an great choice if you plan on hiking the more remote trails in the canyon as well as other backcountry areas.

Hiking sticks are also very useful when hiking in mud and ice. In fact, hiking sticks can be some of the most useful items you can take with you on your hike! Read my Walking Sticks & Trekking Poles for all the benefits of their use.

You can check current trail conditions by calling the park’s Backcountry Office at (928) 638-7875 between 1:00 PM and 5:00 PM MST, Monday through Friday, except Federal holidays. Please note that this number is for information only. They do not take permit requests by phone. You can read more about permit procedures, as well as find more information, on the Backcountry Permit Request Form page.

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