Even though summertime is the most challenging time to hike in the desert, it is also the busiest time. Of course, the main reason for this is that the majority of people get their vacation during the summer months, and it is certainly when most kids are out of school. I will only say this once, if you can hike at any other time of year—DO IT! Even though the weather on the North and South Rims is glorious in summer, the heat in the Inner Canyon can be oppressive and downright dangerous.
Heat, heat, heat! I cannot stress enough just how hot it can truly be in the summer. Don’t let the high country weather fool you into believing that it can’t be THAT HOT…. People get complacent while lounging in the coolness of the rim and never realize that by the time they get to the bottom, it is likely to be 50 degrees hotter than when they started!
If you decide you just HAVE to hike in the summertime, I am providing some tips here to help you do it safely and more enjoyably.
- Hike Early. You can’t start hiking too early! If at all possible, get on the trail before dawn. Take a flashlight and get started. The trail is wide and very obvious when hiking in the dark. Also, if there is any moonlight at all, you may not even need to use a light. The tiniest sliver of moon provides enough light in our dry air to light the way. During a full moon, you can even see all the layers of the canyon walls. If you just can’t get used to the idea of hiking in the dark, be on the trail by dawn’s first glimmer of light. Seriously!
- Wet T-Shirt. Pack a wet cotton t-shirt in a Ziploc bag to put on later in the day when you just don’t think you can take another step. It revitalizes you and cools you off in a way that you wouldn’t believe!
- Wet Yourself Down. Every chance you get, wet your clothing, hair and hat completely down. The air is so dry, your perspiration evaporates instantly. That sweat is trying to provide you with evaporative cooling. Unfortunately it evaporates so quickly, it has little effect on how much it can actually cool you. By wetting yourself down, you are assisting your body in keeping cool.
- Bandanas are one of the most useful items for the trail. During hot weather, soak a bandana and wrap it around the back of your neck. Over 80% of your heat is generated at the back of your neck and head. A wet bandana goes a long way towards cooling you off. I also like to soak two more bandanas and wrap one around each wrist. This is very effective at cooling you since your blood vessels are close to the surface.
- Terry cloth wrist sweat bands work really well in the heat. Rather than use then as intended, rim to rim hiker Bill Huseman soaks them every stream he gets and puts them on his wrists. Dry, they weight next to nothing; wet, they provide effective cooling due to your blood vessels being so close to the surface. This is a variation of the bandanas I mentioned in the tip above.
- Bagged Ice. Phantom Ranch has bagged ice. Bill Huseman makes a great recommendation that you get a bag and fill your water bottles and bladders. Great idea!
- Spray Bottle. Carry one of those very small spray bottles and spray yourself down on the trail. Feels so good!!! As an Inner Canyon backcountry ranger, I would carry one on the trail and spray hikers. They were so appreciative of the cool moisture.
- Moisten Clothing. Nighttime doesn’t cool down very much at Bright Angel Campground. You’re lucky if it gets down to 80 degrees! Most people find it nearly impossible to get to sleep in that kind of heat. But there is something you can do that is very effective at cooling you down. Wet a t-shirt down and wear it to bed. I promise that it will cool you off so much, you may even have to cover up to keep from shivering. And once you get to sleep, it is usually pretty easy to stay asleep, even once you’ve dried off.
- Wet Cotton Sheet for Sleeping. In the hottest of months—June, July and August—you shouldn’t need a sleeping bag. A cotton sheet should provide all the warmth needed in the coolest hours before dawn. And even more importantly, you can dampen the sheet to cool yourself down for sleeping; a variation on the wet t-shirt mentioned above.
- Shade. Pay attention to where you stop on the trail. ALWAYS stop in the shade, if possible. Many people get so hot and tired, they’re not even aware that they are stopping in the sun. You’ve got to stay aware and as cool as possible!
- Eat and Drink Continuously. Salty snacks are best during the hottest summer months because they help replace all the body salts you loose sweating. Do not wait until you’re thirsty to drink! Thirst on the trail means you are already dehydrated, and in this intense heat, you’ve got to stay ahead of the game. Also, keep your water and snacks handy so you don’t have to stop and take your pack off to access them. You won’t stop as often as you need to to keep yourself hydrated!
- Don’t Hike North Rim to Phantom Ranch in One Day. During the scorching hot months of June, July and August, do yourself a huge favor and DON’T try to hike all the way from the North Rim to Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground in one day. If you have to hike during these summer months, plan on staying at Cottonwood Campground to break your hike up into two halves. It is extremely important to get through the last four miles of the trail, known as the “Box”, before 10:00 AM. If you have to do it in one day during this time, get a start from the trailhead by 1:00 AM to 2:00 AM. No joking! You don’t want to be in the Box once the sun hits the black rock and heats up. It is literally like an oven in there! For those who have never hiked the Canyon, it is nearly impossible to know how hard hiking down (yes, down!) 14 miles will be. It is the longest 14 miles you will ever hike. I guarantee it!
- Take Breaks Often. When hiking down, be diligent at taking breaks and eating and drinking often. One thing happens way too much and needs to be emphasized. If you have dinner reservations at Phantom and find that your hike is taking longer than expected (very common I might add!), DO NOT forego breaks to get down faster. Even if you succeed in making it to Phantom on time for dinner, you’ll be too sick to eat it!!! Phantom Ranch will often save food for someone who comes in late and had dinner reservations. They would rather you not get sick either!
- Freeze a Few Water Bottles. If you have access to a freezer the night before your hike, place a couple water bottles or an extra hydration bladder in the freezer and bury inside your pack the following morning for later as a cool treat. You won’t believe how wonderful that water will be when you are roasting on the trail! (Bury them deep in your pack to insulate them from the direct heat which will allow them to stay frozen and cold much longer. But do check them in advance of needing water to make sure that they aren’t so insulated that you have solid ice when you need water to drink! By checking them a little early, you can put them a little closer to the top of your pack to thaw and have them ready to drink when you’re ready.) If you don’t have access to a freezer, make sure you fill your water bottles with ice from the machines at your hotel to cool the water nicely. Again, put your extra water deep into your pack to insulate them and keep them cool.